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Cutting the budget will negatively affect strengthening democracy

By Bheki Mngomezulu

The news about the planned slicing of an estimated R760 million, over three years, from the budget allocated to the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) does not augur well for democratic consolidation in the country.

Certainly, the country’s economy has not been doing well for some time, due to various reasons. Last year, South Africa’s gross domestic product (GDP)) was estimated to be around 5.7%. The figure has been fluctuating in each quarter.

Even at the moment, South Africa’s GDP does not paint a good picture about the prospects for economic growth. Be that as it may, the reality is that cutting the IEC budget by such a huge amount will undoubtedly have detrimental effects on the country’s resolve to consolidate its democracy.

I will cite several reasons to buttress this assertion. First, since its establishment by the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa on October 17, 1996, the IEC has made giant strides in ensuring that democracy is entrenched in the country.

Compared to other countries across Africa, South Africa’s consecutive elections have been deemed credible, free and fair. The IEC has become reputable for its good work.

Among its stipulated duties, the IEC is responsible for the following: to ensure that elections are free and fair, promote conditions conducive to free and fair elections, compile and maintain a national common voters roll, compile and maintain a register of parties, undertake and promote research into electoral matters, develop and promote the development of electoral expertise and technology in all spheres of the government, continuously review electoral laws, promote voter education and declare the election results.

The list is not exhaustive but it paints a broader picture about the importance of this institution. Even between elections, the IEC is saddled with the responsibility to conduct elections, so that all the three spheres of the government remain functional. Importantly, the work of this organisation transcends government boundaries.

It is sometimes asked by various organisations (including church-based organisations, academic institutions and many others) to assist them in conducting their own elections within the parameters of the law.

One of the sad realities in South African politics is that political parties are either unwilling or unable (or both) to conduct political education among their members. This leaves a big gap in terms of capacitating the voters.

The IEC occupies this pace by organising stakeholder engagements, which includes members (and leaders) of political parties. The organisation carries out this work either directly, using its own staff, or solicits the services of independent persons such as academics or those from other sister departments such as Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs and the South African Local Government Association.

All the mechanisms contribute immensely to the consolidation of democracy. As would be expected, they all need money if they are to be carried out effectively. The irony is that the proposed budget cut comes at a time when the number of political parties has increased exponentially.

In the 2021 Local Government Election, no less than 325 political parties participated in that election. Moreover, the number of independent candidates is also on the upward trajectory.

The reality is that some of the leaders of the political parties need to be capacitated before they could even capacitate their members or followers.

In the absence of institutions that provide political education, the IEC becomes the only hope in the country’s resolve to strengthen democracy. With a reduced budget, the IEC will not be able to perform its functions to the fullest. In the process, South Africa’s democratic consolidation agenda will be derailed. Is this what the country wants?

If the government is determined to save costs, there are other ways in which this goal could be achieved. For example, the number of MPs in the national government could be reduced from the current 400.

Second, having so many deputy ministers is not justifiable. This view is buttressed by the fact that when one minister is not available, another one is appointed to act and thus holds two positions.

Deputy ministers are never appointed to act because they do not form part of the executive. The reality is directors-general and deputy directors-generals do the bulk of the work. Ministers are simply political heads of ministries.

Therefore, departments would still survive without ministers. Only certain ministries could retain deputy ministers due to their size and responsibilities. This is not to say that Parliament is the only place where money could be saved. This is just one example.

The thrust of my argument here is that reducing the budget of the IEC by such a huge amount will weaken the country’s democracy and negatively affect the 2024 national and provincial government elections. It is the wrong move.

* Mngomezulu is a Professor of Political Science and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape

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